Wilderness Lost?

Industrialization marches into Orange County, threatening historic battlefield and landscapes along Route 3.

Pausing just before the path turns wooded and winds its way into to her Lake of the Woods neighborhood, Teri Vickery gazes back over her shoulder across the 40-acre clearing at Wilderness Battlefield known as Saunders Field, near where Company K of the most famous Native American unit in the Union Army engaged in its first combat.

She and her husband Doug have just finished their weekly Sunday walk, and on this warm spring day with the grass already knee-high, they chuckle remembering a very different Sunday when many of their Lake of the Woods neighbors arrived on scene to remove tree limbs dropped across the trail by Winter Storm Frida. After all, Teri said, their community feels it has a strong responsibility to steward the beloved woods and open spaces of the Wilderness Battlefield area in eastern Orange County.

“The Wilderness” is a favorite destination not only for locals, but also for nearly 500,000 history buffs, wildlife enthusiasts, hikers, wine lovers and others who visit here every year. Historic Germanna Plank Road (today’s Virginia Route 3) — stretching from Historic Germanna’s Siegen Forest and its new public boat ramp, down the Rapidan River to the vineyards just across Wilderness Run in Spotsylvania County — has long been at the crossroads of history and commerce, and more recently, preservation and conservation.

Unfortunately, the data center industry is steadily spilling outward from its hub in Northern Virginia and posing a dire threat to this storied, mostly intact, rural landscape of fields, forest, river and history. A massive 2,600-acre mixed-use development that could include over five million square feet of energy- and water-hungry data centers is proposed within the historic boundaries of the Wilderness Battlefield. That is why, on May 1, Wilderness Battlefield Area was named one of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places by the National Trust for Historic Places. Teri, Doug, and many of their neighbors were present for the announcement.

The 1864 Battle of the Wilderness resulted in high casualties on both sides, marked a pivotal turning point in the Civil War and is essential to our understanding of that conflict. Today, Wilderness Battlefield anchors a fragile patchwork of protected and unprotected open space, as well as the mostly-unprotected scenic landscape at the gateway to the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park (FSNMP).

Once built, the “Wilderness Crossing” development would sit at the entrance to the Wilderness Battlefield unit of the national park, a portion of it directly abutting National Park Service land. The development is also expected to reignite interest in a Virginia Department of Transportation plan to realign Route 20 through a swath of unprotected battlefield land, owned by the Wilderness Crossing developer, within the Congressionally authorized park boundary.

Data centers are huge — each one about the size of two-to-four football fields and often as tall as a six-story apartment building. They make noise — an incessant hum that has driven some Northern Virginia homeowners to move bedrooms into basements. And they use enormous amounts of water — water that, in the Wilderness Battlefield area, is already in short supply for existing homes and businesses.

And, as has been well-documented, data centers have an insatiable energy appetite and rely on miles and miles of associated transmission infrastructure crisscrossing the landscape. These high-voltage transmission lines are strung along steel-girded, latticed towers as tall as eight two-story homes, in cleared rights of way as wide as 500 feet. To power Wilderness Crossing, at least one mile of new transmission would need to be built from the substation near Lake of the Woods across Route 3 and right over the historic Pilgrim Baptist Church, ca. 1877.

But the threats posed by the mammoth, car-dependent development ripple region-wide. Its proposed footprint and features will exacerbate development pressures along all of Route 3, mirroring past encroachments on Salem Church Battlefield and Chancellorsville Battlefield. Other sites at risk along this historic route through the Rappahannock basin include Historic Germanna, Spotswood Palace, Salubria, Brandy Station Battlefield, Madden’s Tavern, the U.S. Colored Troops Memorial at Ebenezer Baptist Church, and the proposed 40,000-acre Rapidan River-Clark Mountain Rural Historic District. Together, these weave an intricate tapestry of the region’s history.

Teri and Doug know they are lucky to live so near publicly accessible historic and natural resources. “We love walking these trails in all seasons. The battlefield trenches are easiest to see during the winter. The rest of the year, one can understand where the term ‘wilderness’ comes from, since there is so much scrub and undergrowth all around. It’s easy to reflect on the Civil War and how terrible the fighting in this area must have been.” Along with the historical contours of the site, the National Park Service manages battlefield lands to provide habitat for myriad wildlife, including two species of bats which fall under the Endangered Species Act.

Ideally, County leaders would follow that example by promoting biodiversity, ecological resilience and cultural landscape integrity in its land use decisions. Instead, PEC had to file a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit to uncover even basic details about how the forests and fields on the Wilderness Crossing site would be developed and by whom. The American Battlefield Trust and two other nonprofits are engaged in litigation over whether the County followed the proper process in approving the site’s rezoning.

Meanwhile, PEC is co-leading the Virginia Data Center Reform Coalition, comprising more than 30 organizations, homeowners’ groups and residents. This coalition is calling on Virginia’s leaders to implement common sense regulation over an industry that’s creating an energy crisis in Virginia and derailing our climate and clean energy goals while effectively being subsidized by everyone who pays a utility bill.

Wilderness Crossing is a stark example of the threat posed by the unchecked proliferation of data centers across Virginia on our natural, historic and cultural treasures. The 11 Most Endangered Historic Places listing underscores the inextricable link between natural and cultural resources and amplifies the critical importance of state and local policies requiring full transparency and thorough assessment of sensitive resources when considering data centers and other impactful development proposals.

From the edge of Saunders Field, Teri imagines the worst and hopes for the best: “The Wilderness Battlefield area is a serene and special place filled with history. It would be heartbreaking to see it negatively impacted by industrial development like data centers.”

This article appeared in the 2024 summer edition of The Piedmont Environmental Council’s member newsletter, The Piedmont View. If you’d like to become a PEC member or renew your membership, please visit pecva.org/join.